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New Release Review - UNDER THE TREE

under the tree review
A neighbourhood dispute escalates to extremes.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

Starring: Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir

under the tree poster


"Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours." So goes the theme song of a popular Australian soap opera. But while in this context it's meant as a cheery ode to communal warmth, there's also something ominous about the sentiment, a warning as much as anything. Finding yourself living next door to an antagonistic figure can be a living nightmare, and with dwelling space so difficult to obtain in this overcrowded modern world, it's not a scenario you can simply walk away from.

That said, sometimes you get the neighbours you deserve. That's the case with the two warring couples at the centre of writer/director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson's Under the Tree, two sets of neighbours you wouldn't wish on anyone else.

under the tree review

Retirees Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) find their relationship tested by the disappearance and presumed suicide of their eldest son. Baldvin retreats into the bosom of his local male voice choir (whose moody warblings serve to score some of the film's more ominous sequences) while Inga argues with her younger neighbours, Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir), over the large tree that stands in her front lawn, its leafy limbs casting a giant shadow over her neighbours' yard, spoiling Eybjorg's sunbathing efforts (though the movie is so overcast throughout, you wonder how anyone could possibly acquire a tan).

After a row between the two women over Eybjorg's pet Alsation's habit of relieving itself in Inga's garden ends with Inga hurling a bag of doggy do at Eybjorg, Baldvin finds his tires slashed the following morning. Thus begins an escalation of the neighbourhood feud, which sees both sides adopt increasingly extreme tactics.

Much of the film's running time is devoted not to this war, but to Inga and Baldvin's son, Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson), who finds himself living with his parents after his wife, Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir), kicks him out of their home upon discovering a sex tape starring Atli and a former girlfriend. Atli and Agnes become as antagonistic towards one another as the two sets of neighbours in the film's other storyline.

under the tree review

In recent years, Scandinavian filmmakers have become cinema's great satirists, with films like Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure and The SquareMikkel Nørgaard's Klown and Grímur Hákonarson's Rams taking a distinctly Nordic approach to chronicling middle class mores. In Iceland, such black comedy is known as 'gálgahúmor', which roughly translates as 'gallows humour', and I imagine if you live in a part of the world where the sky is black for half of the year you have to learn to laugh at the darkness.

A common theme in Scandinavian black comedies is that of escalating inter-personal feuds, as displayed here. Such narratives would seem to serve as a critique of Northern Europeans' aversion to confrontation and talking things out, a tactic which inevitably leads to situations escalating needlessly. As an Irishman I can fully relate to this mentality. As with our Scandinavian neighbours, we like to bury our heads in the sand whenever a problem might arise, hoping if we ignore it the grievance might somehow disappear. It never does of course, but we let it grow like a cancerous tumour until it spreads beyond repair.

A demonstration of this mindset comes when Atli visits a meeting called in a neighbour's residence regarding issues affecting the apartment block. The neighbour in question awkwardly attempts to grab the bull by the horns and confront his neighbours with his various gripes. His efforts backfire as the gathered neighbours have no interest in indulging such directness, and the meeting collapses when Agnes informs the room that her husband likes to masturbate to sex tapes involving old girlfriends.

under the tree review

For a nation with a population of less than 350,000, Iceland has a staggeringly diverse film industry. I see a half dozen new Icelandic movies every year and rarely see the same faces crop up. It seems like every second person in Reykjavik is an actor, and Under the Tree boasts the sort of impressive cast we've come to expect from an Icelandic film. Steinþórsson (think a Scandinavian Martin Freeman) is particularly impressive as the put upon victim of his own indiscretions who comes closest to the film's lead character, with Björgvinsdóttir scarily convincing as a woman retreating into the darkness as she uses her neighbourly dispute as a means of coping with the heartbreak of her son's disappearance.

If the film has an affable presence for viewers to latch onto, it's Sigurjónsson's Baldvin, a likeable sort who simply wants an easy life denied him by his wife's antagonism. Director Sigurðsson nods to the famous tennis sequence from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train late on with a shot of Baldvin's choir in full voice, all the men belting out song save for Baldvin, who stands still among them, his face processing the life he's found himself inhabiting. It's hard not to feel for him, but like his son's marital stress, it's a problem he's partly brought upon himself in his refusal to cut a dispute off at the roots.

Under the Tree is in UK/ROI cinemas August 10th.




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